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Book Review: “Like a Virgin”, by Aarathi Prasad

While modern humans have a broad selection of contraception options, reproducing is still limited to the “egg + sperm = baby” theme whether in the bedroom or in a test-tube.  The Amazon review of Aarathi Prasad’s book, which my husband keeps calling “A lucky virgin”, promises the book “delivers an astonishing exploration of the mysteries of sex and evolution past, present and future”.  Personally, I was initially interested in the summary of current research and the blue sky options.

Unexpectedly, I really enjoyed the historical account of research into reproductive biology.  It’s interesting to realise how a woman’s role in reproduction was considered to be a passive receptacle of male “vital power”.  At the same time an inability to conceive or produce a male heir (the story of Henry VIII and his 6 wives comes to mind) was repeatedly blamed on women.

The section of the book focusing on the present day is full of truly astonishing facts about animal and human reproductive biology.

Amongst the animals the most interesting reproductive system design prize goes to hyenas:  females have a clitoris almost indistinguishable from a male’s penis.  The most bizarre fact from the area of human reproductive biology must be the successful pregnancy by a woman who lacked a vagina.  Beyond the anecdotal reports,  ‘Like a Virgin’ contains the best description of three different germs layers that make up an embryo I’ve ever read and the narrative on epigenetic programming of placenta development is really fascinating.

However, as the book approaches the section on modern pioneering research, the narrative is starting to flag. It disintegrates into a patchwork description of various laboratories research currently in progress and other topics loosely connected to human reproduction in the 21rst century. The book jumps from reproductive materials trafficking to surrogate agencies in Mumbai, to ovaries transplantation, to solo parents – individuals who choose to have and raise children without a partner. The true virgin birth in mice described on one page – the field of non-canonical reproduction is simply not mature enough to write a book about.  The book marketing follows the modern trend of overselling the science – while the subtitle details that “scientists are redesigning the rules of sex”, we are still learning them and far from the revolutionary changes in human reproduction.

Apart from the disappointment with the oversell, the question I expected to be covered, but which Dr. Prasad only touches on briefly, is why humans would want to have a virgin birth?  The proposed explanation is that solo parents will ultimately want to be the sole (pun intended) source of genetic material. Personally I don’t believe I would want to have a second generation copy of myself – through cloning or a virgin birth.  The main joy of having a baby through sexual reproduction is the anticipation of the lottery outcome of similar and new features in the child that has been created.

So if you are interested in a collection of amusing facts about reproductive biology, I recommend you do read the book, however if you interested in a state of art update on the field of reproductive biology – try Nature reviews instead. Unfortunately, I can’t recommend anything comprehensible about the ethics of human reproduction.  Can you?

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